TO ROLAND BARTHES,
all narratives share structural features that each narrative weaves
together in different ways. Despite the differences between individual
narratives, any narrative employs a limited number of organizational
structures (specifically, five of them) that affect our reading of texts.
Rather than see this situation as limiting, however, Barthes argues
that we should take this plurality of codes as an invitation to read
a text in such a way as to bring out its multiple meanings and connotations.
Rather than read a text for its linear plot (this happens, then this,
then this), rather than be constrained by either genre or even temporal
progression, Barthes argues for what he terms a "writerly"
rather than a "readerly" approach to texts. According to Barthes,
"the writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite
play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected,
stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism)
which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the
infinity of languages" (5).
This closing of the text happens as you read, as you make decisions
about a work's genre and its ideological beliefs; however, when you
analyze any one sentence of a work closely, it is possible to illustrate
just how impacted with meaning (and possibility) any one sentence really
is. Barthes exemplifies what he means in S/Z,
in which he takes a short story by Honoré de Balzac (Sarrasine)
and analyzes each individual sentence for its relation to five master
codes. The forward progression of plot is, he illustrates, only part
of the "story"; indeed, that forward progression can itself
be separated into two elements that drive our desire to continue reading
and hermeneutic codes, which are explained in
the next module). In addition, Barthes pinpoints three additional
codes that have nothing to do with temporal sequentiality (see
the next module). When analyzed closely, every sentence in a story
is replete with multiple meanings, all of which are functioning simultaneously
in the reading process. As Barthes puts it, "the networks are many
and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest;
this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds;
it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several
entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main
In other words, Barthes' goal is to illustrate how "plotting,"
as it is traditionally understood, is in fact a retroactive construction.
Instead of seeing a text as conforming to a plot triangle (an opening
exposition followed by rising action, a conflict leading to a climax,
then falling action leading to a resolution), Barthes understands narrative
as more akin to a constellation. He refers, for example, to "'nebulae'
of signifieds" (8).
According to this logic, there is no necessity that we begin a story
at the beginning and proceed to the end; a "writerly text,"
according to Barthes, has multiple entrances and exits. Barthes therefore
chooses to cut up the texts he analyzes into "contiguous fragments"
he calls lexias or "units of reading" (13)
or "starred" segments. Barthes' form of criticism ultimately
"consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting
Rather than read a text for its closural moment, Barthes is interested
in rereading: "rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology
('this happens before or after that') and recaptures
a mythic time (without before or after)" (16).
As an example of what Barthes is getting at,
I will here reproduce his analysis of the title and first sentence of
Balzac's story (pages 17-18
of S/Z). Barthes's method is very much a heuristic one, so it may
well be that the best way to illustrate what Barthes is getting at is
to reproduce his method. (As a result, one of the best ways to understand
Barthes is to begin to apply him; for an application of Barthes to Wuthering
Heights, see Applications:
Wuthering Heights.) In the following module, I will explain
the five codes in more detail. Before we get there, here is Barthes
on the opening of Balzac's Sarrasine:
(1) SARRASINE * The title raises a question: What
is Sarrasine? A noun? A name? A thing? A man? A woman? This question
will not be answered until much later, by the biography of the sculptor
named Sarrasine. Let us designate as hermeneutic code (HER)
all the units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a
question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can
either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute
an enigma and lead to its solution. Thus, the title Sarrasine
initiates the first step in a sequence which will not be completed
until No. 153 (HER. Enigma 1—the story will contain others—:
question). ** The word Sarrasine has an
additional connotation, that of femininity, which will be obvious
to any French-speaking person, since that language automatically takes
the final "e" as a specifically feminine linguistic property,
particularly in the case of a proper name whose masculine form (Sarrazin)
exists in French onomastics. Femininity (connoted) is a signifier
which will occur in several places in the text; it is a shifting element
which can combine with other similar elements to create characters,
ambiances, shapes, and symbols. Although every unit we mention here
will be a signifier, this one is of a very special type: it is the
signifier par excellence because of its connotation, in the usual
meaning of the term. We shall call this element a signifier (without
going into further detail), or a seme (semantically, the
seme is the unit of the signifier), and we shall indicate these units
by the abbreviation SEM, designating each time by an approximate word
the connotative signifier referred to in the lexia (SEM. Femininity).
(2) I was deep in one of those daydreams*
There will be nothing wayward about the daydream introduced here:
it will be solidly constructed along the most familiar rhetorical
lines, in a series of antitheses: garden and salon, life and death,
cold and heat, outside and interior. The lexia thus lays the groundwork,
in introductory form, for a vast symbolic structure, since it can
lend itself to many substitutions, variations, which will lead us
from the garden to the castrato, from the salon to the girl with whom
the narrator is in love, by way of the mysterious old man, the full-bosomed
Mme de lanty, or Vien's moonlit Adonis. Thus, on the symbolic level,
an immense province appears, the province of the antithesis, of which
this forms the first unit, linking at the start its two adversative
terms (A/B) in the word daydream. (We shall mark all the
units in this symbolic area with the letters SYM. here—SYM.
Antithesis: AB.) ** The state of absorption formulated
here (I was deep in...) already implies (at least in "readerly"
discourse) some event which will bring it to an end (...when I
was roused by a conversation...No. 14). Such sequences imply
a logic in human behavior. In Aristotelian terms, in which praxis
is linked to proairesis, or the ability rationally to determine
the result of an action, we shall name this code of actions and behavior
proairetic (in narrative, however, the discourse, rather
than the characters, determines the action). This code of actions
will be abbreviated ACT; furthermore, since these actions produce
effects, each effect will have a generic name giving a kind of title
to the sequence, and we shall number each of the terms which constitute
it, as they appear (ACT. "To be deep in": 1: to be absorbed).
(3) which overtake even the shallowest of men, in the midst of
the most tumultuous parties. * The fact "there
is a party" (given here obliquely), soon to be followed by further
data (a private house in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré), forms
a pertinent signifier: the wealth of the Lanty family (SEM. Wealth).
** The phrase is a conversion of what might easily
be a real proverb: "Tumultuous parties: deep daydreams."
the statement is made in a collective and anonymous voice originating
in traditional human experience. Thus, the unit has been formed by
a gnomic code, and this code is one of the numerous codes of knowledge
or wisdom to which the text continually refers; we shall call them
in a very general way cultural codes (even though, of course,
all codes are cultural), or rather, since they afford the discourse
a basis in scientific or moral authority, we shall call them reference
codes (REF. Gnomic code).
Proper Citation of this Page:
Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Barthes: On
Plotting." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update,
which you can find on the home page.
Purdue U. Date you accessed the site. <http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/narratology/modules/barthesplot.html>.